Sima Bahous: The Crisis in Syria is a Crisis for Development

Oct 1, 2013

US$60 million needed to step up UNDP’s emergency livelihoods response in Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. Photo: IRIN News Service

Remarks of Sima Bahous, UN Assistant Secretary-General  and Director of,

Regional Bureau for Arab States, United Nations Development Programme;

Presented at meeting of Norweigan Ministry of Foreign Affairs,

Oslo, Norway, 1 October 2013;
at UN City, Copenhagen, Denmark, 3 October 2013.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear Colleagues and Friends,

Good Afternoon.  I am pleased to be here.  I come from a region, and I represent a Region that is in crisis today.   I also come and represent a UN Agency, UNDP, that is doing its utmost to help the region in its quest for democracy and human dignity. I will start with Syria and its spillover effect — the most immediate challenge.

From the use of chemical weapons, to indiscriminate fighting and mortar attacks, the crisis is making headlines. Syria’s conflict has had an effect on refugee flows, and is attracting extremist behavior of all kinds.

By focusing on the headlines, however, we are only seeing the top of the iceberg.

Underneath the emerging peak of violence, or armed groups and regional politics, there is a mountain of development failure. A mountain we ignore at our own peril.

Addressing the Development Impact of the Syria Crisis

Human suffering in Syria is nothing short of terrible. Over 100,000 men, women and children have died. More than 2 million people have fled the country. Over 4 million have sought refuge internally. Entire villages are destroyed. Schools and hospitals leveled. 

The need for a political solution in Syria is urgent. And the transition to recovery and development cannot wait.

This is needed first and foremost for the future of Syria itself. But a solution is also urgent for the prospects of its neighbors.

Indeed today the crisis in Syria is also putting tremendous strain on the sub-region. Jordan and Lebanon and more recently Iraq are shaken to the core and need more support from international partners.

Host communities are feeling the strains of too many refugees and depleting resources at all levels.

In this context there is an increasing consensus that the Syria crisis is not only a political crisis and a humanitarian crisis, it is also a development crisis.

Last Wednesday we released a joint World Bank UN Report on the development impact of the Syria crisis on Lebanon, to inform the inaugural meeting of the International Support Group for that country, chaired by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

The report showed that the Syria crisis will have cost Lebanon US$7.5 billion in economic losses, driven unemployment upwards of 20 per cent, and driven some 170,000 more Lebanese into poverty.

The health sector is also severely strained. A recent survey showed that some 40 per cent of primary health-care visits are for Syrian refugees. Already stretched health systems have struggled to keep up with increasing demand, resulting in a sharp rise in communicable disease, the emergence of new diseases not present in Lebanon before, and an increasing risk of epidemic.

Having accommodated 40,000 refugee children, the public school system is under similar stress.

For its part, Jordan is hosting some 550,000 Syrian refugees, 75% of whom are living among Jordanian communities, and is also experiencing strain on social services, on infrastructure such as electricity and on scarce resources including water, and deteriorating health, employment, income and education indicators.

In both of these countries these rapidly-increasing pressures are also contributing to social tensions and also present challenges to progress on socio-economic and political reform which are underway.

For the United Nations Development Group, the broader UN and our partners it is clear that we need to work with counterparts as effectively as possible to help avert a major development rollback in this increasingly fragile sub-region.

Our role at UNDP in partnership with all is to help these countries and our international partners to ensure that the international response is not only humanitarian in nature but also developmental. In Syria, where and when we can, our focus is on creating emergency jobs, and repair infrastructure such as schools, hospitals, and water and sewage systems – interventions that create income for otherwise unemployed people while restoring access to basic services for some of those who have now had to go without.

In Jordan and Lebanon our we are supporting programmes aimed at stabilization, recovery and risk mitigation through job creation, economic stabilization and maintain social cohesion through community-based initiatives that bring together local authorities, civil society and the private sector.

In both of these countries as the lead agency of the UNDG we are also coordinating the response of the UN development community, fostering government ownership, working closely with the World Bank and engaging the private sector and civil society.

And as it becomes increasingly clear that the long term development impact of these interventions needs to be urgently addressed, at UNDP along with our sister agencies we have laid all of the groundwork needed to scale-up our programmes should our international partners be ready to commit resources to join us in ensuring that the humanitarian response is complemented with a strong development response.

Indeed, dear friends, the Syria crisis challenges us to go beyond traditional views of the continuum from humanitarian relief to long-term development. It is now, as the refugees are in the camps, or living in host countries that the development needs are at their most acute. It is now, as Damascus, Homs and Hama receive mortar shells and rocket attacks that the populations need their lives restored, and their livelihoods secured. It is only by banking on the resilience of war-torn communities, inside and outside Syria that we can ensure the foundations of peace. It is only by supporting livelihoods in Syria, that we can prevent mass migration and incredible stress on neighbouring countries.

The search for peace and stability passes through humanitarian relief and development support. We count on you to help us in this endeavour.

The Broader Region

Zooming back out to the broader region, if the development response is needed in connection with Syrian crisis, we believe it is also a central dimension of the international response in other Arab countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen.

Nearly three years ago the Arab peoples took bold steps towards the promise of a better future.

People took to the streets to shape their own destiny.

Rejecting unemployment, poverty, and vulnerability, men, women and youth came together and took control of their fate.

It was inspiring. Across the region, people walked tall, and stood proud in a new sense of citizenship. The Arab peoples felt that the promise of a better future was within reach.

But today many are asking if that promise still remains.

We see violence, discord, armed struggle and deaths in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, Sudan, Iraq and Yemen. The path to democracy is long and fraught with difficulties, and I admire the determination and optimism of the people and governments that have chosen this path.

After all, the uprisings themselves, while on the surface seemingly purely political events, were rooted in the failure of development, in widespread exclusion, and in deteriorating quality of life. 

Economies were shrinking. Job opportunities were reducing and youth migration increased, adding to the vulnerability of a region that is severely affected by climate change, water scarcity and food insecurity.  

The combination of weak states, large youth populations and poverty in countries like Somalia and Yemen, and in parts of Libya, served only to provide more recruits for militias, bandits and extremists.

Reversing this failure, reversing this development stagnation, is a fundamental prerequisite of securing a peaceful future in the Arab region.

If we look at history, we see that no transition has ever been smooth or speedy. Nor has any succeeded without inclusive growth, social inclusion and civil society participation.

And this progress is urgent. Last week we launched along with ESCWA and the League of Arab States a troubling report showing that since 2010 progress in the Arab region towards the MDGs has slowed, largely a result of crisis and instability in many countries across the region.

The report shows that many Arab countries are off the path to reach many important MDGs. Overall the region has done relatively well in terms of education, with primary school enrolment and literacy having improved, and with many countries closing in on gender parity in enrolment in primary, secondary and tertiary education. However the region is lagging behind on important targets, particularly those related to nutrition, food security, access to water and sanitation, and child and maternal mortality.

In the Arab Region we must also not lose sight of the other deficits that have characterized the region such as gaps in knowledge, gender equality, human rights and freedoms, and good governance.

One of the main challenges in the Arab world today is to help both States and Citizens define a new social contract.

However there are now new challenges on the landscape, like understanding the meaning of political Islam, supporting efforts to create consensus-based pluralism and preserve the rights of minorities and majorities alike, dealing with extremists including the emergence of Al-Qaeda affiliates operating in and from Syria, and safeguarding previous advances in women’s rights and human rights in their totality during a time of change and new questions.

At the United Nations Development Programme, we are working with all stakeholders in every country in the Arab region in this time of need, working to lay the foundations for peace and security, good governance, prosperity, democracy and participation in public life.

We are also working to complete the unfinished business of the MDGs and to best define the Post-2015 Development Agenda.

In transitioning countries we are working to support needed reforms to advance democratic participation and help improve social welfare and expand economic opportunity.

For example in Tunisia we have provided pivotal support to elections, constitutional development and the promotion of the rule of law.

In Egypt, UNDP promotes inclusive processes that respect the rights of all citizens and addresses the urgent economic needs of the most vulnerable. 

In Libya the UN system including UNDP provided crucial support to Libya’s first free elections and promoted the participation of women candidates. In Libya, UNDP also supported the national constitution process through engagement of citizens in various governorates.   

In countries undergoing conflict or impacted by neighboring crises we are helping to provide the much needed humanitarian assistance, while we are also supporting programmes that create jobs, secure livelihoods and preserve social cohesion. In this way we are bridging humanitarian assistance to long term development support.

We are also working to stabilize countries such as Jordan and Morocco and to draw a roadmap for restabilizing the whole region.

The challenges are great but the time to act is now.  The future of the Arab region hangs in the balance.

And we are pleased to partner with all of the Nordic countries our work.

In these efforts, UNDP has the trust of governments and civil society in bringing impartial, high-level advice to bear on important issues. We also have long experience, of developing quick impact programmes in situations of instability and conflict. The Nordic Countries are important partners in providing support to our programme at this most critical time. Together, we are partners for change.

After all, the progress of the Arab region and that of its international partners are truly intertwined.

The Eurozone is the Arab Region’s largest trading partner. Any slowdown or instability in either region has a negative impact as well on the other.

We are also connected by the movement of people. Many young Arabs dream of seeking economic opportunity in Europe. Our hope in the Arab region is to be able to ensure that our youth — the 200 million Arabs under the age of 24 — have as much opportunity right at home.

And finally we are also connected in the most serious of matters: peace and security.

We must continue to work together to help realize the aspirations of the Arab people. This is a long process that requires attention not only to the immediate and short term needs but requires perseverance and a firm commitment to long term investments.

So is the promise of a better future still within reach in the Arab region?

It is within reach, but arriving there is not guaranteed. Reaching that promise will require dedicated support and sustained engagement. It will require coordinated efforts and everyone’s best partnership with this troubled region.

The Nordic Countries and UNDP, together, can be part of a catalyst that will keep the hopes of the Arab peoples alive.

Thank you.

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